Women’s suffrage: structural conditions & the suffragettes

PalmBy Trineke Palm / Reading Time: 6 Minutes.

Last December Suffragette was premiered in Dutch cinemas. The movie is a penetrating account of the hard fight for the introduction of women’s suffrage in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century. The movie is centered on the role of Emmiline Pankhurst and her suffragettes who strive to acquire this basic political right. Moreover, it provides insights into the societal circumstances of the UK at that time. The movie gets you thinking about (women’s) suffrage in general: how come some countries have been much quicker than others in introducing (women’s) suffrage? What are the factors that influenced this process? And, finally how to put the UK’s stance in a comparative perspective?

SuffragettesAlthough universal suffrage is usually meant to include suffrage for both men and women, well-known and established democratization theories, like the one of Samuel P. Huntington, take male suffrage solely as proxy for measuring democratization. In contrast, as soon as the bar is raised to include women’s suffrage, Huntington’s . Table 1 shows that the timing of male suffrage is not a proxy for the introduction of women’s suffrage. For example, France, Belgium and Switzerland were early in the introduction of male suffrage, but “late” with the introduction of women’s suffrage. In contrast, Austria and Sweden were relatively late in introducing male suffrage, but introduced women’s suffrage “already” just after the First World War. This reveals that an early introduction of male suffrage does not imply an early introduction of women’s suffrage.

As the table shows, both World Wars created a momentum for extending suffrage to women. However, a war cannot as such explain the timing of women’s suffrage as some countries introduced it after the First World War and others only after the Second World War.

Table 1 Introduction of women’s suffrage relative to male suffrage

quella giusta

Although the democratization literature focuses on male suffrage, suffragettes did not escape academic attention, focusing in particular on the success of women’s movement. For example, in her research Lee Ann Banaszak compares the women’s movements in the US and Switzerland. She focuses on the tactics used by the women’s movements in these two countries to explain their (lack of) success; while the US suffragettes were more confrontational, the Swiss movement used a more consensus oriented tactic. While these studies point at the agenda-setting role of suffragettes, they underestimate the constraining or enabling importance of structural conditions. Suffragettes did not emerge and did not operate in a political vacuum. To understand the conditions under which women’s suffrage was introduced early or late,, we have to look at the structural causes. To this effect, I have used Stein Rokkan’s cleavage theory, about fundamental divisions in society. These cleavages concern fundamental conflicts between different societal groups, which played an important role in the process of nation-building.

Political WomenRokkan distinguishes between 4 cleavages: 1) ethnic-linguistic, 2) religious, 3) sectoral (agriculture vs. industry), 4) class. It is expected that ethnic-linguistic fragmentation will delay the introduction of women’s suffrage, because the “women’s issue” is swallowed by other political conflicts. The same applies to the presence of a class conflict. With regards to the sectoral cleavage, we would that in a society with a relatively large agricultural sector women’s suffrage is introduced relatively early, because women stand on more equal footing with men than in an industrial society. These cleavages are not mutually exclusive – rather, it is the combination that matters.

In my research of 13 West-European countries the absence of an ethnic-linguistic cleavage is a necessary condition for an early introduction of women’s suffrage (with the notable exception of Finland).

Table 2 Early introduction of women’s suffrage

table 1

This is in line with the expectation that either suffrage is extended first to the men of the minority population (at the expense of extending suffrage to women), or this ethnic-linguistic cleavage divides women, preventing them to act as a united front. This absence of the ethnic-linguistic cleavage, however, is not sufficient – see France and Italy (table 3). In these countries a religious cleavage, combined with a class cleavage, result in the late introduction of women’s suffrage.

Table 3 Late introduction of women’s suffrage

table 3

Moreover, in contrast to Teri Carraway claims, my study shows that the class cleavage does not necessarily delay the introduction of women’s suffrage; it all depends on the presence of a religious cleavage.In short, to explain the timing of the introduction of women’s suffrage in Western Europe we have to take into account the societal conditions of a given country. However, this does not play down the importance of the agency of women to put the issue of women’s suffrage on the agenda, as highlighted by Lee Ann Banaszak.

Glass cealingA lot has changed since the introduction of women’s suffrage – the legal and actual position of women in the public realm has been much improved. Nevertheless, the discussion about the position of women in the public domain is still a matter of debate, e.g. the “glass ceiling” in academia and business.

The fight for formal political equality was just a start!

Which structural cleavages play a role in these “new” fights for equality?

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Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy.

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